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It is not the purpose of this introduction to trace the history of English drama from its origin, but rather to present as briefly as may be the conditions in which that marvellous production of Elizabethan days came forth. We must pass by the old liturgical plays, the mysteries, miracles, interludes, and masks that served as forerunners of the perfected form. The lines between tragedy and comedy had been fixed, and the struggle between classic and romantic types was well on when Marlowe “ of the mighty line” went to London " to find his fortune, not to make it."
The causes of that tremendous burst of lyrical and dramatic splendor are in part conjectural. Literature is an expression of life, national and individual; and whenever there comes to the individual or to society a realization and recognition of self, there comes also the expression of that idea. Neither conception nor expression can be dragged or driven, cajoled or coaxed. Conditions and men are equally essential.
In the days of Elizabeth, England awoke to a new consciousness of her greatness and power. The person was reborn and became an individual, confident of his own and of his country's strength. The world was large, but Drake had sailed around it and brought safely back his treasure-laden vessel. What limit could be placed to man's effort ? Mighty issues were at stake; the days were full of adventure; ambition was almost boundless. New lands were discovered. A bold commerce brought not only the merchandise but the bewildering legends from the people of the East. The sway of one religion had passed and men governed themselves by new beliefs. The courtier, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the soldier, lived in one man. The versatility of Sidney, Bacon, Raleigh and a host of others bears amazing testimony. Men were stirred as they had never been before nor since. Romance seemed reality, and life romantic.
The spirit thus engendered demanded a free course and full expression. The accomplishment of the reformation, the repulse of Spain, and the enlightenment of the renaissance made its power resistless. The new learning took quick root, sprang up, and flourished. Classical study was adapted to modern thought; translations of the Bible were developing a perfection of English speech; and English travellers and students seized eagerly the lore and legends of Italy, France, and Germany. Every source was laid under contribution. Materials were thus collected for a splendid art of some sort : what that art should be, the national conditions and native genius of the English people soon determined. The stage for the display of the new-found knowledge was found in the romantic drama which from the first was close to the hearts of the people and soon displaced other forms of art, — painting, sculpture, architecture. The drama in England was the main outlet for the energy acquired from the renaissance of the South and the reformation of the North.
In answer to this call, a host of playwrights made their way to London. Kyd, Nash, Peele, Greene, Marlowe, Munday, Lodge, Chettle, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Shakspere — where shall such a catalogue end? They were authors and actors alike, bound in good fellowship and genial feeling ; hale fellows, all of them, rich while a shilling remained in pocket, careless alike of poverty or wealth, and never anxious beyond the moment. They drank too much, lived lives all too fast, and their short years were quickly run.) Liberty still meant ugly license, and life was careless, exuberant, unrestrained, lawless. Many a tavern reëchoed to rollicking songs through many a merry night. Most famous is the 66
“Mermaid, where the literary clique gathered for the common carousal of wine and wit.
“What things have we seen –...
The business of playwright was the only lucrative literary occupation of the day. The demand for plays exceeded the supply so that a ready market awaited every product. Prices were not sh, it is true, but money was worth more then than now. In the early days, four pounds, from twenty-five to thirty now, was an average price. Later ten pounds were given, and this according to one of Ben Jonson's characters 2 became the customary price. The author was closely connected with some one theatre and company of actors. All that he wrote belonged to the theatre and formed a part of its library — its most valuable property.
1 Kyd died at thirty-eight, Nash at thirty-four, Peele at thirty-nine, Greene at thirty-two, Marlowe at twenty-nine.
2 Chrisoganus, in Histriomastix.